It is rarely given much thought nowadays, but deep down in the DNA of all modern guitar music is the blues. Regardless of the genre or how far it has mutated from the original source the Delta is embedded in there somewhere. So what happens if someone went even further back to the roots of blues itself, to the slave chants and rhythms of the Americas, and melded it with some of the most extreme music around? The answer is Zeal & Ardor‘s experimental breakout LP Devil Is Fine.
It began when multi-instrumentalist and frontman Manuel Gagneux (interview here) took to 4chan to ask users what two musical styles he should combine for his Birdmask project. One commenter suggested black metal; another replied with a racial slur, but Gagneux ran with the idea. Zeal & Ardor may have started out following racist abuse on an online forum, but it soon became a genuinely new sound.
By taking the melody and soul of African American spirituals and combining them with the rage and outright aggression of black metal, Zeal & Ardor created the foundations of something completely fresh. Devil Is Fine is not a perfect album, and there are some parts of it that don’t completely gel, but minor (and they are minor) missteps are to be expected when stepping out into such a bold new frontier. Gagneux would go on to refine and nigh-on perfect this sound with follow-up album Stranger Fruit, but as the first glimpse behind the door, Devil Is Fine is and was a bona fide revelation.
Starting with the ritualistic chants of the title-track through to the more overt blues of ‘What Is A Killer Like You Gonna Do Here?’, Devil Is Fine is an atmospheric dive into a world that might have been. The ice cold soul of Scandinavian black metal is replaced by the warmth of the American South, but it is not a comforting heat. It’s the sticky, oppressive, claustrophobic heat that clings to the skin and gets into your lungs. Even the use of cheap equipment makes the album sound far older than it actually is. Tracks like ‘In Ashes’ sound like it was recorded in New Orleans in the early ’20s, not 2016.
From an occult perspective it is a different beast entirely. Gone is the LaVey Satanism of the early second wave, to be replaced with something much older. This isn’t an album of anti-Christian bombast, but of conjure. Of root, bone, crossroads and graveyard dust.
Devil Is Fine is a different approach to black metal, a unique voice for the genre and genuinely one of the most important albums to have been released this decade.
Words: Nathan Tyler